6 min read

Mike Johnson’s honeymoon is over

If he ever even had one.
Mike Johnson’s honeymoon is over
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)

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To pass a bill on the House floor, generally lawmakers must first pass a measure known as a “rule,” which authorizes the chamber to consider a specific piece of legislation and dictates how much debate on the legislation will take place.

Rule votes are some of the most routine that members cast: usually, leaders of the House majority will only put bills on the floor if they know their party supports them. And if members support a bill, it is usually a no-brainer that they will vote for the rule that allows for the bill to be debated.

Between January 2003 and January 2023, not a single rule vote failed in the House.

That logic has been turned on its head by the current House Republican majority, one of the most unruly and ungovernable seen in modern times. In 2023, four rule votes were defeated — more than in any year in history. GOP hardliners actively prevented bills they supported from receiving floor consideration, as a way to protest then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership.

McCarthy is no longer the speaker — those same hardliners ousted him later last year — but the problems facing the House GOP haven’t changed. On Wednesday, yet another rule vote went down in flames, as 13 House Republican rebels blocked a rule to allow consideration of three conservative pieces of legislation. It was the first such defeat of Mike Johnson’s speakership.

After the failed rule vote, the House canceled the rest of the scheduled votes for the day. The chamber is now in a holding pattern reminiscent of last June’s standstill, when conservatives blocked a string of rules to express their frustrations about the bipartisan debt ceiling deal McCarthy cut with President Biden. Wednesday’s thwarted rule vote was, similarly, a protest of Johnson’s government funding deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (a deal that largely hews to the previous Biden-McCarthy agreement).

The renewed revolt comes at a critical juncture for Johnson. Government funding is set to expire, under a plan he devised, in two upcoming waves: funding for some agencies will lapse on January 19; the rest will run out of money on February 2. Johnson had previously told conservatives that he would not support another short-term funding bill, a promise he will likely have to break to avoid a government shutdown. (While Johnson and Schumer have agreed on the topline funding numbers, there is no way lawmakers will be able to strike a deal on the finer details of a year-long funding bill in the next eight days.)

In addition, Johnson also has to keep an eye on bipartisan Senate negotiations over a potential deal to link border security restrictions with increased aid for Israel and Ukraine. The negotiations are taking place at Johnson’s insistence, but if they produce an agreement, he will have to decide whether to give their deal a vote on the House floor — even if House conservatives aren’t satisfied with the final product.

And then there is the long list of investigations his members are pursuing, several of which are intensifying. Just yesterday, two House panels approved a report recommending that Hunter Biden (who was in the room watching) be held in contempt of Congress. The House Homeland Security Committee also held its first hearing to consider impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. On both matters, Johnson has to juggle the interests of his moderate members with the constantly rebelling members of his right flank, who he needs to keep happy in order to avoid embarrassments like Wednesday’s rule vote.

It is a balancing act Johnson is finding just as difficult to pull off as McCarthy did before him — and conservatives no longer seem willing to give Johnson any slack, despite his ideological history. Johnson has now been reduced to begging right-wing members to stop bashing him on social media and calling Donald Trump in hopes he won’t criticize his funding deal. 78 days in, the honeymoon is over.

With the hardliners in full rebellion mode, Johnson likely won’t be able to place a rule on the floor to approve an eventual stopgap funding bill. Instead, such a measure will probably have to proceed under “suspension of the rules,” a process that allows for bills to avoid a separate rule vote if they are supported by two-thirds of the House.

For the rest of this Congress, assume that any must-pass piece of legislation will proceed under “suspension of the rules.” This inverts the usual expectations for House votes: instead of Johnson only being able to lose three Republican votes, he will need to pick up ~70 Democratic votes in order to notch a two-thirds majority for funding bills and the like. With the GOP majority unable to singlehandedly provide the votes to keep the government running, an ad hoc coalition of Republicans and Democrats will be needed for such matters.

When McCarthy relied on such a strategy, using “suspension of the rules” to advance a stopgap funding bill last September, he was out of a job within the week. It’s always possible that Johnson could meet the same fate, although it is hard to imagine what conservatives would gain — they are seeing in real time that swapping speakers will do little to help their priorities advance when Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

That hasn’t stopped some right-wing members from floating the idea. “If they totally botch [the appropriations bills]...I don't know why we would keep him as speaker,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said Tuesday.

“If they try it,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), a moderate member, told Semafor, “they are fucking idiots.”

More news to know.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Chris Christie dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday. Christie, an ex-Donald Trump ally who had framed his GOP primary campaign around attacking Trump, used his final speech as a candidate to once again urge Republicans not to renominate the former president.

With Christie out of the race, Nikki Haley’s chances of making the New Hampshire primary competitive are now significantly upgraded. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump currently leads polls in the state with an average of 42.4%. If Christie’s 11.6% is added to Haley’s 29.9% — most of his supporters are expected to back her — she would stand at 41.5%, within striking distance of Trump.

Christie did not endorse Haley or any other candidate on Wednesday, however, which could have helped seal the deal. Instead, the former New Jersey governor was overheard dismissing Haley on a hot mic before the event. “She’s going to get smoked — you and I both know it,” Christie could be heard to saying. “She’s not up to this.”

Meanwhile, Haley and Ron DeSantis traded fire in a one-on-one debate on Wednesday, their last chance to gain momentum before the Iowa caucuses. Once again, they focused on each other and largely ignored Trump, who dominates polls both in Iowa and nationally.

More key headlines:

The day ahead.

President Biden has nothing on his public schedule besides receiving his daily intelligence briefing.

Vice President Harris will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she will participate in a roundtable discussion on gun violence.

The Senate will vote on confirmation of Erika McEntarfer to lead the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The House is scheduled to vote on the No Russian Agriculture Act under “suspension of the rules.” The chamber may also attempt to hold a rule vote to consider additional pieces of legislation.

Donald Trump will attend the closing arguments of his civil fraud trial in New York City. Trump had requested to give a statement during the session, but the judge rejected his request after Trump refused to promise that he would keep his statement focused on facts relevant to the case.

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